What Makes Holly Hunter Such
A Powerhouse Talent
Outstanding romantic comedies are rare these days, but Michael Showalter’s “The Big Sick” is certainly one of them.
The film, which is by turns hilarious, dark, and touching, concerns a Pakistani stand-up comic (Kumail Nanjiani) who blows a promising romance with grad student Emily (Zoe Kazan), only to be drawn back into her orbit when she develops a serious illness.
And playing the young woman’s mother, veteran actress Holly Hunter nearly steals the show.
In one highlight, Kumail is doing his routine in a comedy club with Beth (Hunter) and her husband Terry (Ray Romano) in attendance. When a burly, drunken frat house boy yells out a racist epithet, a war of words ensues between him and the diminutive Beth until she physically launches herself at him. Luckily for the frat boy, she is restrained from tearing his eyes out.
For me, that moment captured Hunter’s unique and enduring appeal: her “cute” face, petite stature, and sweet southern accent has always belied a feisty, independent, strong-minded personality. The characters she plays tend to be more wildcat than kitten.
As too many female movie stars face career declines in middle age, Hunter has stayed busy, and shows no signs of slowing down.
Born in Conyers, Georgia, the youngest of seven children, Holly showed an early aptitude for performing, which her parents encouraged. She ended up graduating from Pittsburgh’s Carnegie-Mellon University in 1980 with a drama degree. After doing local theater there for a season, Holly moved to the theatrical mecca of New York in 1981. She found an apartment in the Bronx, where her roommate was a fellow actress named Frances McDormand.
The following year, in a bizarre stroke of luck, Holly found herself stuck in an elevator with gifted playwright Beth Henley for about ten minutes. She must have made an impression, as she would soon make her Broadway debut in Henley’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play, “Crimes of the Heart,” replacing Mary Beth Hurt.
More good fortune followed. When Hunter and McDormand finally decided to conquer Hollywood in 1982, the two moved into an apartment shared by aspiring filmmakers Joel and Ethan Coen. Within two years the brothers would break through with their first feature, “Blood Simple” (1984). This offbeat thriller would launch McDormand, who’d also marry Ethan the same year.
Though you can only hear Holly’s voice on an answering machine in that first film, the Coens had not forgotten her. In their second outing, a black comedy called “Raising Arizona” (1987), she was cast along with Nicolas Cage as a childless couple who make off with one of a set of quintuplets.
Then came another fortuitous turn of events. Director James L. Brooks was getting ready to shoot “Broadcast News,” a drama about romantic and professional rivalries at a local TV station. Brooks had written the part of female producer Jane Craig specifically for Debra Winger, with whom he’d worked on “Terms of Endearment” (1983). Then Winger got inconveniently pregnant.
After considering several other actresses, including Sigourney Weaver and Elizabeth McGovern, Hunter was cast less than a week before shooting was to begin. She’d end up earning the first of four Oscar nominations for her performance.
1993 would turn out to be Hunter’s year. First, she’d win an Emmy for “The Positively True Adventures of the Alleged Texas Cheerleader-Murdering Mom,” playing the title role. Then she became one of only eleven individuals to receive two Oscar nods for acting in the same year, one for “The Firm” (Supporting Actress) and one for “The Piano” (Actress).
On Oscar night, she won the bigger prize for “The Piano,” beating out, among others Emma Thompson for “The Remains of the Day” and (ironically) Debra Winger for “Shadowlands.” The award felt fully earned given the challenging role she tackled: her Ada is a mute woman in the mid-nineteenth century who travels to far-off New Zealand with her young daughter (Anna Paquin) and precious piano for an arranged marriage.
With no dialogue to learn, her performance was all about expression and movement. And she had to pick up a certain amount of sign language as well, an arduous and time-consuming task. One bright spot: her piano playing would pose no problem, as Hunter had played proficiently from childhood, and the musical selections featured in the film matched her aptitude.
In the quarter century since, Hunter has worked steadily in movies, television and the theatre, racking up another Oscar nomination (for 2003’s “Thirteen”), three Golden Globe nods, and four more Emmy nominations- two for “Saving Grace,” an acclaimed series that ran on TNT from 2007-2010. (She also executive-produced both “Thirteen” and “Saving Grace”).
Holly met actor Gordon MacDonald in 2001 when they were cast together in a play, and their relationship turned romantic just as she was divorcing Janusz Kaminski, Steven Spielberg’s longtime cinematographer. The couple became parents to twin boys in 2006, with Holly giving birth at the age of 47. (Thankfully, she has the stamina of a woman half her age!)
Asked what keeps her so passionate about acting, Hunter put it this way: “Actors do movies because you want to make a connection, you want an audience to recognize themselves in what it is that you're depicting. The portrait [you create], you want it to be a reflection of some aspect of humanity that people understand, that they see in their own lives. And so, when a movie makes a connection like that, there's simply nothing better.”
Holly Hunter, thanks for helping us connect so often.